Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are there. Waves crashing against a mildewed sea wall. A young couple cavorting in a dark, dilapidated alley. Guitars and voices harmonizing over a syncopated drum rhythm. Sunlight slanting across rotten peeling paintwork. A handsome youth in a guayabera shirt leaning against a Lada. The smell of diesel fumes and cheap aftershave. Tourists with Hemingway beards. Che Guevara on a billboard.
No one could have invented Havana . It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and- despite 50 years of withering neglect- too damned beautiful. How it does it, is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the history, the survivalist spirit, or the salsa energy that ricochets off walls and emanates most emphatically from the people. Don’t come here looking for answers. Just arrive with an open mind and prepare yourself for a long, slow seduction.
On the drive from Vinales to Havana, we stopped at a beautiful botanical garden in the countryside.
We arrived in the city with enough time to eat lunch, rest up, and dress up for the evening’s festivities. We would be going to an outdoor party at the Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana.
The party was a very elaborate affair. I think we all had mixed feelings about it. It was very nice, but very fancy and a bit over the top. The party was $200 a person, and none of us would ever pay that for a party on our own. Also, that is about 8 months pay for a Cuban. After spending the last 10 days staying in Cuban homes, we were all of the sudden amongst the crowds from the cruise ships and fancy hotels and resorts, so it was a bit of a culture shock. Some of us stayed for the dinner, live music, and some dancing, but headed to another party on one of the casa’s rooftop terraces shortly before midnight. At the fancy party, they had provided favors- noise makers, hats, and flower necklaces. Most of us just throw that stuff away after using it, I left mine on the table. Well, on the way out of the party, there were several kids hanging around wanting the favors from the party. They really wanted those toys and I felt guilty for thinking of it as junk.
I’m not sure how, but it seems that the moon was full all of the nights from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve?! How is that possible. I remember seeing it full on Christmas Eve in Remedios, from a rooftop terrace in Cienfuegos a few nights later, and from a rooftop terrace in Havana also.
Another interesting tidbit about Havana…. I noticed that Cubans walk in the middle of the street through the city, they never walk on the sidewalks. It was explained to me that there have been times when the balconies above have just collapsed and fallen into the street, so that’s why!
On New Year’s day, we all slept in a bit and then went on a tour of the city in a classic car. This was so much fun! Faye, Fred, Amber, and I rode with our driver Reinaldo in a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air.
A quick stop at Sloppy Joe’s bar first. Some of us had coffee and some of us needed hair of the dog.
Plaza de la Revolucion
In the new part of Havana, we stopped at a beautiful riverside park. There were some vultures hanging around. Manny explained that they were after the chicken remains. Cubans use this park sometimes at night for Santeria ceremonies.
We continued in the classic car through the embassy district, and a small part of the malecon.
We stopped at the National Hotel for drinks. I felt like such a high roller.
Then we jumped into coco taxis to cruise the rest of the Malecon. So much fun!
After a late lunch, we started our walking tour of Old Havana.
After a full day of sightseeing, we met for a final dinner in the new part of Havana. We said our goodbyes to Manolo, our wonderful guide, and to each other. Some of us were flying out the next day, while others would have an extra day or two in Havana.
Highly recommended Casas Particulares stayed at in Havana: Casa Alta on Calle San Ignacio and Casa Vieja Hostal on Calle Habana.
Sources: Lonely Planet Cuba guidebook 2015, Locally Sourced Cuba Tours